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Bookends: A two part Martian Odyssey January 28, 2016

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: A two part Martian Odyssey

By Dan Davidson

August 12, 2015

– 955 words –

Red ThunderRed Thunder

By John Varley

Ace Books

411 pages



Red Lightning

By John Varley

Ace BooksRed Lightning

355 pages



The two books in this week’s column are part of John Varley’s four part tribute to the young adult novels of Robert A. Heinlein. There are some who would suggest that Varley’s entire career tends in that direction, but the Thunder and Lightning books clearly fall into that category.

They are first person narratives, told by relatively young people. They are full of adventure and optimism, and yet they deal with some pretty harrowing situations. They also deal with some pretty space happy pseudo-science.

While each of the books has a definite narrator, it’s safe to say that the central character is a socially autistic genius named Jubal. Jubal lives with his cousin, a former astronaut named Travis Broussard. Due to problems in his past, Travis has a serious drinking problem and the four young people who change his life meet him one night when they are joy riding on the Florida beach and nearly run him over.

It is Manny Garcia, our narrator, who notices that Jubal has created something strange while they are visiting Travis’ ranch. The bubble Manny picks up turns out to be a small force field created by Jubal’s device that he calls a squeezer.

The squeezer can surround and compress whatever matter is enclosed by it and then release the generated energy in a controlled or uncontrolled burst, depending on whether you want a bomb or power for an engine.

It can also be used to simply generate electrical power, or to power any sort of engine.

Travis and the four young people (Dak, Alicia and Kelly, along with Manny) decide to use it to build a spaceship out of surplus tanker cars, and use that to become the first humans to go to Mars.

There are two reasons for this. One is to beat the Chinese ship already on the way, but the more important one is that Jubal has calculated the American ship also heading there will meet with an accident because its drive is faulty. Using squeezer power, Jubal calculates the ship the kids and Travis are building can make the trip in four days, rather that the months the conventionally propelled ships have taken to do it.

First, however, they have to build their ship, which takes them about a year, and about a million dollars. They call it Red Thunder. You might not think that chapters spent planning and building a spaceship in an abandoned warehouse could be interesting, but you’d be wrong. Varley spins a plausible sounding yarn and makes us believe it as the gang plans, tests plans, builds and refines their craft.

They get there, beat the Chinese, save most of the American astronauts when the Ares Seven breaks up during its trip and return as heroes. (Yeah – spoilers; but you knew I was going to write about a sequel, so hat did you expect?)

Part of the plan here was to arrange things so that no one nation on Earth ever gets control of the squeezer device, for its potential as a weapon is so far beyond anything ever created that Travis and the gang are sworn to prevent it happening.

They succeed at this, and all goes pretty well for the next couple of decades, which is when the sequel picks up the story. This one is narrated by Manny and Kelly’s son, Ray Garcia-Strickland, who has been raised on a Mars which squeezer propelled ships has made a pretty popular tourist destination.

On Earth, something terrible has happened. Something like a large rock has impacted the Atlantic Ocean at near light speed velocity, causing a tidal wave that has devastated most of the habitable east coast of the USA. Ray’s family boards a ship to go back to Earth and try to rescue his grandmother. About half of the book is about this trip and the terrible conditions they find in Florida when they get there.

Varley says this scenario was inspired by two actual events: the 9-11 terrorist attacks and tsunami in the Indian Ocean that did so much damage there. His original draft was going to drop the rock into just that area, but the tsunami hit while he as writing the book and he relocated it out of sympathy to the real disaster.

The other half is about what happened when Jubal, who has been living a secluded life under heavy guard, dreaming his dreams and overseeing the supply of squeezer devices for the entire world, disappears.

It’s assumed the family on Mars will know where he is, and various militant Earth factions take turns invading the domed settlements on the Red Planet in search of the man who made free energy possible.

If some of this sounds a bit like Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I revisited here earlier in the summer, it’s surely not an accident. The action is a little more wide ranging than that – including some torture, a space chase and another example of just how deadly Jubal’s device can be – and Varley avoids a lot of the philosophical chit-chat that sometimes cluttered RAH’s later books, but it is clearly cut from that same bolt of optimistic cloth.

There are two more books in this series, each set another couple of decades on in time. One of them even has a heroine whose name echoes that of Heinlein’s Podkayne of Mars, so I’m sure that there will be more of that flavour when I get around to them.







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